Comedy of the commons

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In the Comedy of the Commons, the opposite results of the tragedy of the commons effect are witnessed. That is, individuals contributing knowledge and content for the good of the community rather than extracting resources for their own personal gain. Examples of this are free and open source software and Wikipedia. This phenomenon is linked to "viral" effects and increases in prominence as individuals contribute altruistically and for social gain.

The phenomenon is sometimes called the inverse commons as well as "comedy of the commons"[1] and the "cornucopia of the commons."[2]

It is one of four outcomes:

Private ownership Common ownership
Bad outcome/tragedy Tragedy of the anticommons Tragedy of the commons
Good outcome/cornucopia/comedy*
(*in the sense of "drama with a happy ending")
Successful capitalism Comedy of the commons

The prevalent outcome depends on the details of the situation. The inverse commons outcome is likely when the cost of the contribution is much less than its value over time. Information has this property. For example, it costs very little for a Wikipedia contributor to enter knowledge from their experience into Wikipedia's servers, and very little for Wikipedia to serve that information over and over again to readers, generating great value over time. Unlike the pasture of a physical commons, information isn't degraded by use. Thus the value of Wikipedia increases over time, attracting more readers some of whom become contributors, forming a virtuous cycle.[3][4][5]

If a resource is economically scarce, then tragedy of the commons occurs when property conventions are lacking. If something is not economically scarce - many people can use it simultaneously - then comedy of the commons may occur. If economic scarcity is a necessary characteristic of property, then the comedy of the commons only happens to non-property.[citation needed]

For the Wikipedia example, while lots of information can be added with very little cost, properly researching high-quality information can be costly and time-consuming (e.g. finding sources, proper citations etc). In that case, the individuals who have done the high-cost work probably will never be compensated or profit from their work, while all readers of Wikipedia and future generations will profit from it. In a capitalist economy, food and house rent cost money so individuals who have voluntarily contributed a lot of high-quality work to Wikipedia and don't have any income-generating job or other means of support may face a situation in which even though they have made important contributions to the welfare of society they cannot have enough money to buy food or pay their rent, since they gave away their work for free as volunteers. This is a general problem for all authors, artists or others who create information, and copyright was designed as a solution to this problem within a capitalist society, the aim being to help authors get compensated for their work and enable them to live as authors and not seek other jobs and stop writing.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rose, Carol M. (1986). "The Comedy of the Commons: Commerce, Custom, and Inherently Public Property". Faculty Scholarship Series: Paper 1828. Retrieved December 28, 2011. 
  2. ^ Dan Bricklin (October 12, 2006). "The Cornucopia of the Commons: How to get volunteer labor". Retrieved December 28, 2011. 
  3. ^ Broughton, John. Wikipedia: The Missing Manual: Introduction: About Wikipedia (On-line editable ed.). ISBN 0-596-51516-2. 
  4. ^ Gulley, Ned. "In Praise of Tweaking: A Wiki-like Programming Contest". Retrieved December 27, 2011. 
  5. ^ "In praise of Wikipedia: Wiki birthday to you: A celebration of an astonishing achievement, and a few worries". The Economist. Jan 13, 2011. Retrieved December 28, 2011.